The February 14, 2017 active shooter murder of seventeen students and staff at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, revealed a stunning breakdown in the system designed to prevent a repeat of the landmark 1999 Columbine, Colorado, high school shooting. The most shocking revelations were the fact that the School Resource Officer, whose responsibility at that moment was to respond to the shooter, and possibly two additional deputies stood by and made no effort to confront the individual committing the murders.
On a personal level, as a father of two adult daughters, and as a 34-year veteran of law enforcement, twenty-five of those years in SWAT, I am furious to hear of their failures, but I am not all together surprised. Perhaps it was a lack of training, or maybe a stand down order was given, contrary to their training, or possibly they were frozen into a paradigm that only a certain number of officers were required in order to properly perform the task. The worst, however, of these potential causes would have been their fear to engage. Many of us have worked side by side with the few who fall into that last category, and somehow remain in a career for which they are ill suited.
That moment of clarity came to Officer Justin Garner in 2009, when he responded alone, to an active shooter at an Alzheimer rehabilitation center in Carthage, North Carolina. While conducting research for a course I would be presenting on “SWAT Tactics for the Patrol Officer,” at a reserve police officer conference in San Diego, I came across an article in the National Tactical Officers’ Association’s magazine, The Tactical Edge, which chronicled the solo response of an officer to an active shooter incident.
Officer Garner was dispatched to the call of a 45 year old armed male suspect who was looking for his estranged wife at the center, and was actively killing seven elderly patients and one nurse with a shotgun. Officer Garner made the decision to enter, armed only with his .40 caliber Glock pistol. He encountered the suspect at the end of a 40 yard corridor.
Officer Garner ordered the suspect to drop the shotgun, but the suspect raised the weapon and fired. Garner fired one round, striking the suspect’s arm, which then entered his chest, and put the man down. Garner was wounded with three shotgun pellets, and the suspect survived.
There are scores of “what if’s” to this event resulting from Officer Garner’s decision to go it alone, rather than risk the loss of additional life. Officer safety is drilled into new officers at the police academy, to the point of many officers now placing it higher than the innocent citizen victim, in the order of lifesaving priorities.
I always took my training seriously, and believed that because I did, my skill-sets would be better than the suspects that I would encounter. I never considered it bravado, but rather confidence in my training, skills, and equipment. Part of that training involved constant mental rehearsing of scenarios, so that when confronted with a crisis, I would have already experienced it, and formulated a response.
I don’t have all the information to render a conclusion on the law enforcement officers who did not engage to protect the lives of those kids and teachers; but if backup resources are more than a few seconds away, and you are the only armed cop in proximity to the perpetrator, you have a decision to make. The example has already been established by Officer Garner and others who have chosen to “protect and serve.” If you have not by now, run the Parkland scenario through the mental decision making process, you need to do so before your next shift.